To the King family, who have sacrificed and inspired so much, to President Clinton, President Carter, Vice President Biden, Jill, fellow Americans, five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1963, almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise, those truths remained unmet. And so they came by the thousands, from every corner of our country -- men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others. Across the land, congregations sent them off with food and with prayer. In the middle of the night, entire blocks of Harlem came out to wish them well.
With the few dollars they scrimped from their labor, some bought tickets and boarded buses, even if they couldn't always sit where they wanted to sit. Those with less money hitchhiked, or walked. They were seamstresses, and steelworkers, and students, and teachers, maids and pullman porters. They shared simple meals and bunked together on floors.
And then, on a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation's capital, under the shadow of the great emancipator, to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress and to awaken America's long-slumbering conscience.
We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.
Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn't vote, in cities where their votes didn't matter. There were couples in love who couldn't marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire- hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.
That was the spirit they brought here that day.
That was the spirit young people like John Lewis brought that day. That was the spirit that they carried with them like a torch back to their cities and their neighborhoods, that steady flame of conscience and courage that would sustain them through the campaigns to come, through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches, far from the spotlight, through the loss of four little girls in Birmingham, the carnage of Edmund Pettus Bridge and the agony of Dallas, California, Memphis. Through setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered and never died.
And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes. (Applause.) Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed. (Cheers, applause.)
Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities.
America changed for you and for me.
And the entire world drew strength from that example, whether it be young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid. (Applause.) Those are the victories they won, with iron wills and hope in their hearts. That is the transformation that they wrought with each step of their well-worn shoes. That's the depth that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries -- folks who could have run a company, maybe, if they had ever had a chance; those white students who put themselves in harm's way even though they didn't have to -- (applause) -- those Japanese- Americans who recalled their own interment, those Jewish Americans who had survived the Holocaust, people who could have given up and given in but kept on keeping on, knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning -- (cheers, applause) -- on the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all, in ways that our children now take for granted as people of all colors and creeds live together and learn together and walk together, and fight alongside one another and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth.
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. (Applause.) Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. (Applause.) Their victory was great.
But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it's by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails -- (applause) -- it requires vigilance.
And we'll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. (Applause.) People of good will, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history's currents. (Applause.)
In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination -- the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice -- (applause) -- not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?
This idea that -- that one's liberty is linked to one's livelihood, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security -- this idea was not new.
Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms, as a promise that in due time, the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men and that all should have an equal chance.
Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures -- conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.
What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It's what's lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it's along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one's station in life, that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.
Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half-century ago. But as has already been noted, black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white employment (sic), Latino unemployment close behind. The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it's grown.
As President Clinton indicated, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.
For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.
And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.) The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.
We shouldn't fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963 the economy's changed.
The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class, reduced the bargaining power of American workers.
And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests -- those who benefit from an unjust status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal, marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools -- that all these things violated sound economic principles.
We'd be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market -- that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.
And then there were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth, that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity -- that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse- making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.
But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations, where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That's one path. Or we can have the courage to change.
The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate.
But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We'll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.
And I believe that spirit is there, that true force inside each of us. I see it when a white mother recognizes her own daughter in the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man. It's there when the native born recognizing that striving spirit of a new immigrant, when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who were discriminated against and understands it as their own. That's where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That's where courage comes from. (Applause.)
And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person. (Applause.) With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them. (Applause.) With that courage, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.
America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we'll get back up. That's how a movement happens. That's how history bends. That's how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we're marching. (Cheers, applause.)
There's a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.
We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling processions of that day so long ago, no one can match King's brilliance, but the same flames that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains. (Applause.)
That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge -- she's marching. (Applause.) That successful businessman who doesn't have to, but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who's down on his luck -- he's marching.
(Cheers, applause.) The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody's son -- she's marching. (Cheers, applause.) The father who realizes the most important job he'll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father, especially if he didn't have a father at home -- he's marching. (Applause.) The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home -- they are marching. (Applause.) Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching. (Applause.)
And that's the lesson of our past, that's the promise of tomorrow, that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. And when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. (Cheers, applause.)
Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.
Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, President Carter, Vice President Biden, Dr. Biden, I want to thank my great friend Reverend Bernice King and the King family for inviting me to be a part of this 50th observation of one of the most important days in American history.
Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis and Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Myrlie Evers, Daisy Bates and all the others who led this massive march knew what they were doing on this hallowed ground.
In the shadow of Lincoln’s statute, the burning memory of the fact that he gave his life to preserve the Union and end slavery, Martin Luther King urged his crowd not to drink from the cup of bitterness but to reach across the racial divide because, he said, we cannot walk alone. Their destiny is tied up with our destiny. Their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
He urged the victims of racial violence to meet white Americans with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist, and, in so doing, to prove the redeeming power of unearned suffering. And then he dreamed of an America where all citizens would sit together at the table of brotherhood, where little white boys and girls and little black boys and girls would hold hands across the color line, where his own children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
This march and that speech changed America. They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions, including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas. (Applause.) It was an empowering moment, but also an empowered moment. As the great chronicler of those years, Taylor Branch, wrote: The movement here gained the force to open, quote, “the stubborn gates of freedom,” and out flowed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, immigration reform, Medicare, Medicaid, open housing.
It is well to remember that the leaders and the foot soldiers here were both idealists and tough realists; they had to be. It was a violent time. Just three months later, we lost President Kennedy and we thank God that President Johnson came in and fought for all those issues I just mentioned. (Applause.) Just five years later, we lost Senator Kennedy. And in between there was the carnage of the fight for jobs, freedom and equality. Just 18 days after this march, four little children were killed in the Birmingham church bombinng. Then there were the Ku Klux Klan murders, the Mississippi lynching and a dozen others until in 1968 Dr. King himself was martyred, still marching for jobs and freedom.
What a debt we owe to those people who came here 50 years ago. (Cheers, applause.) The martyrs played it all for a dream, a dream, as John Lewis said, that millions have now actually lived.
So how are we going to repay the debt? Dr. King’s dream of interdependence, his prescription of wholehearted cooperation across racial lines -- they ring as true today as they did 50 years ago. Oh, yes, we face terrible political gridlock now. Read a little history; it’s nothing new. Yes, there remain racial inequalities in employment, income, health, wealth, incarceration, and in the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. But we don’t face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore. And I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back. (Cheers, applause.)
We cannot be disheartened by the forces of resistance to building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes or to rebuilding our education system to give our children a common core of knowledge necessary to ensure success or to give Americans of all ages access to affordable college and training programs. And we thank the president for his efforts in those regards. (Applause.)
We cannot relax in our efforts to implement health care reform in a way that ends discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions -- one of which is inadequate income to pay for rising health care -- (applause) -- a health care reform that will lower costs and lengthen lives; nor can we stop investing in science and technology to train our young people of all races for the jobs of tomorrow; and to act on what we learn about our bodies, our businesses and our climate. We must push open those stubborn gates.
We cannot be discouraged by a Supreme Court decision that said we don’t need this critical provision of the Voting Rights Act because, look at the states, it made it harder for African Americans and Hispanics and students and the elderly and the infirm and poor working folks to vote. What do you know; they showed up, stood in line for hours and voted anyway. So, obviously we don’t need any kind of law. (Applause.)
But a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon. (Cheers, applause.) We must open those stubborn gates.
And let us not forget that while racial divides persist and must not be denied, the whole American landscape is littered with the lost dreams and dashed hopes of people of all races. And the great irony of the current moment is that the future has never brimmed with more possibilities. It has never burned brighter in what we could become if we push open those stubborn gates and if we do it together.
The choice remains as it was on that distant summer day 50 years ago: cooperate and thrive or fight with each other and fall behind. We should all thank God for Dr. King and John Lewis and all those who gave us a dream to guide us, a dream they paid for, like our founders, with their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. (Cheers, applause.) And we thank them for reminding us that America is always becoming, always on a journey. And we all, every single citizen among us, have to run our length.
God bless them, and God bless America. (Cheers, applause.)
Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.
President and Mrs. Obama, President Clinton, President Carter, I want to thank Bernice King, the King family and the National Park Service for inviting me here to speak today.
When I look out over this diverse crowd and survey the guests on this platform, it seemed to realize what Otis Redding sang about and what Martin Luther King Jr. preached about. This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come. (Cheers, applause.)
We are standing here in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln 150 years after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and only 50 years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years, but we still have a great distance to go before we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes we want to tell them come and walk in my shoes. (Applause.) Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.
I first came to Washington in the same year that President Barack Obama was born, to participate in a Freedom Ride. In 1961, black and white people could not be seated together on a Greyhound bus, so we decided to take a integrated (fashioned ?) ride from here to New Orleans. But we never made it there.
Over 400 of us were arrested and jailed in Mississippi during the Freedom Rides. A bus was set on fire in Anniston, Alabama. We were beaten and arrested and jailed, but we helped bring an end to segregation in public transportation.
I came back here again in June of 1963 with the Big Six as the new chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
We met with President Kennedy who said the fires of frustration were burning throughout America. In 1963, we could not register to vote simply because of the color of our skin. We had to pay a poll tax, pass a so-called literacy test, count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar. Hundreds and thousands of people were arrested and jailed throughout the South for trying to participate in the democratic process. Medgar Evers had been killed in Mississippi.
And that's why we told President Kennedy we intended to march on Washington, to demonstrate the need for equal justice and equal opportunity in America.
On August 28th, 1963, the nation's capital was in a state of emergency. Thousands of troops surrounded the city. Workers was told to stay home that day, liquor stores were closed, but the march was so orderly, so peaceful, it was filled with dignity and self-respect because we believe in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. People came that day to that march just like they were on their way to religious service. As Mahalia Jackson sang, how we got over, how we got over, she drew thousands of us together in a strange sense. It seemed like the whole place start rocking.
We truly believe that in every human being, even those who -- violent -- who were violent toward us, there was a spark of the divine.
And no person had the right to scar or destroy that spark. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. He taught us to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled. He taught us to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way.
People were inspired by that vision of justice and equality, and they were willing to put their bodies on the line for a greater cause greater than themselves. Not one incident of violence was reported that day. A spirit had engulfed the leadership of the movement and all of its participants.
The spirit of Dr. King's words captured the hearts of people not just around America but around the world. On that day, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech, but he also delivered a sermon. He transformed these marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit. He changed us forever.
After the ceremony was over, President Kennedy invited us back down to the White House. He met us, standing in the door of the Oval Office, and he was beaming like a proud father. As he shook the hands of each one of us, he said, you did a good job, you did a good job. And he said to Dr. King, and you had a dream.
Fifty years later we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay. Those signs that said "white" and "colored" are gone. And you won't see them anymore -- (cheers, applause) -- except in a museum, in a book, on a video.
But there are still invisible signs buried in the hearts in humankind that form a gulf between us. Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.
The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights.
So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize. (Cheers, applause.)
We did go to jail, but we got the Civil Rights Act. We got the Voting Rights Act. We got the Fair Housing Act. But we must continue to push. We must continue to work, as the late A. Philip Randolph said to organizers for the march in 1963.
And the dean of the civil rights movement once said, we may have come here on different ships, but we all are in the same boat now. So it doesn't matter whether they're black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight -- we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house -- not just the American house, but the the world house. (Cheers, applause.)
And when we finally accept these truths, then we will be able to fulfill Dr. King's dream to build a beloved community, a nation and a world at peace with itself. Thank you very much. (Cheers, applause.)
(Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.)
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